OP-ED: Full communication will help the staff feel like a family

Employee relations took a hard slap upside the head from the media last summer. The signature image was of people stumbling out of their office buildings, clutching boxes filled with coffee mugs, Dilbert desk calendars, and framed grip-and-grin photographs.

Employee relations took a hard slap upside the head from the media last summer. The signature image was of people stumbling out of their office buildings, clutching boxes filled with coffee mugs, Dilbert desk calendars, and framed grip-and-grin photographs.

They had the dazed and hollow look of ambush victims. They never saw it coming. "Sorry about all that 'happy news' we've been giving you," they were essentially told. "We're actually going down the tubes. You have to leave now." Yet one more unfortunate step was taken in destroying the retro notion of credibility between employer and employee. The past decade's cynicism about employer loyalty and job security-learning it was history- was one-upped by an even sadder reality: Employers are even losing their sense of personal integrity and common courtesy. Though the workplace is a professional environment, these issues become personal because every employer claims to be seeking a bond of "family" among the staff. Happy brothers and sisters, who not coincidentally offer higher productivity and lower turnover, are what all bosses long for. No company says that it hopes to earn the disloyalty of employees. All employers want the same thing, but are their current actions any way to treat family? The youngest of corporate pledges learn the rules quickly. Paper managers love memos and "heads-up" e-mails, because "nobody likes to be blindsided and nobody likes surprises." But too often lately, the wisdom doesn't seem to go from the top down. Who decided front-line employees, unlike their supervisors, like to be blindsided? A recent employee poll by the Society for Human Resource Management found that the single most important factor in promoting the credibility of management is "communications - good news and bad." Companies better start communicating quickly: As PRWeek reported, the annual poll of 1,700 people by Aon Consulting's Loyalty Institute found that employee commitment is at the lowest level since the survey began in 1997. Yet another employee poll, from the Employment Law Alliance, revealed that the majority of employees have "little trust" in the abilities of management. Common courtesy says we put on the turn signal when our lane is ending - it's a visual request to join the other lane, rather than a demand to be let in. Common courtesy says we warn "look out" when a fellow subway rider is about to lose a backpack to the closing doors. And yet the courtesy of giving the full truth to people who are our companies' greatest assets is becoming alarmingly uncommon. Black hats can be found in several corners. Of course, paranoid poobahs in the executive suite are partially to blame. They trust no one, and figure employees are lucky to have a job, let alone information. But they're also victims of a culture driven both by Wall Street and the business media. If a company shows one hint of weakness it gets hammered. Shares plummet, stockholders revolt, and retiree nest eggs fall from the tree. Whereas the reward for silence and happy talk is usually just silence. As the employee surveys show, things have to change. Common sense and courtesy must prevail, or this cubicle is going to be a pretty miserable place to work, pretend family or no family. In the endless search for competitive advantages, truth and integrity must be no less important than market share and PE ratios when it comes to hiring and retaining staff. Companies have to appreciate - as they once did - that being a good place to work is good for business. Sears saw that several years ago upon the discovery that it could use employee satisfaction scores as predictors for in-store sales performance. Fortunately, broader change for the better may already be coming. Rising from the embarrassing ashes of accounting scandals and corporate governance failures are companies with a newly juiced sensibility about the basics. After all, this isn't rocket science: Tell employees the truth, tell them often, and tell them what they want to know, not just what the executive suite feels is important. New CEOs who are replacing the dirty and deposed are pledging to talk with employees as much as they do with the board. When the new head of a troubled telecommunications giant said nothing was more important than communication with employees, they stood and cheered. His new communications chief said she believed in "radical transparency," both with employees and analysts, and the street bumped the company's stock price 20%. Straight talk may yet replace happy talk - that fantasy children's world where clouds never turn gray and profits never quiver. Employees may get to see the game plan, be treated as trusted teammates, and be taken into as much confidence as the SEC allows. If so, the market collapse of this past summer may be remembered for how it reawakened executives to collegial responsibilities within their home walls. And maybe there will be happy families living in those repolished office towers after all.
  • David Narsavage is a senior partner with The Aker Partners, and former director of employee communications with Amtrak.

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